Chinese women and consumer culture : discourses on beauty and identity in advertising and women's magazines 1985-1995

University dissertation from Stockholm : Stockholms universitet

Abstract: Chinese women and consumer culture are studied through semiotics and discourse analysis of advertisements and beauty editorials from women's magazines. The trajectory of Chinese consumption and advertising development during the last two decades is outlined and the changing notions of female beauty after Mao is examined, describing the resurfacing gender differences and the renewed importance of body and gender, together with the commodification of women and female beauty. I suggest that the emerging Chinese consumer culture provides an alternative space for identity-construction outside the hegemony of the Party-State but show that advertisements, covers and written material from two official women's magazines change from images of hedonistic, uninhibited and flamboyant women to representations of soft-looking and shy-acting women in domestic settings and Chinese traditional dresses. Editorial discussions contrast Chinese women's "inner" beauty with the "outer" beauty of Western women and many advertisements also cover up or hide women's faces and bodies from the gaze of the reader. This would prove that the re-feminization of post-Mao China entails a conflated official and consumerist construction of a beautified and commodified traditional femininity. A study of the beauty ideals of fair skin and large breasts discloses a cluster of meanings grouped around a set of dichotomies. Advertisements for skin care and skin-whitening products portray a chaste, disciplined and anxious femininity fearful of nature. Advertisements for bust enhancers picture narcissistic, pleasure seeking women in natural settings, equating her female curves to Western civilization and modernity. That Chinese advertising aimed at women is preoccupied with notions of identity and difference is further proved by an analysis of the large number of Caucasian models in Chinese advertising. Western women in Chinese ads imagined as strong, passionate and fertile, articulating fetishist fantasies of the Other resembling colonial Orientalist stereotypes. Among the conclusions drawn one is that the female images in Chinese advertising together with the rhetoric of beauty articles constitute a discourse on cultural and gendered identity that translate the question of the Self and the Other into a gendered notion of China versus the West. Contemporary Chinese women are therefore pulled in two directions, advised not only to make themselves beautiful and sexy and thereby become "modern," but also they must act as chaste, caring and submissive housewives in order to be able to properly represent Chinese culture and values. Finally, as a productive and constitutive discourse, consumer culture is not about the accumulation of sameness or the eradication of cultural diversity.

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